It's an irresistible concept:
A wheel of fortune will determine the fate of each Yo La Tengo show on their
winter tour. Or more specifically, the first half of the show, during which the
band could play any one of eight sets, depending on where the wheel lands.
Yo La Tengo could, for instance,
perform as an entirely different band (Dump or the Condo Fucks). Yo La Tengo
and crew could act out a sitcom. Yo La Tengo could play only songs that start
The second half is entirely
up to the band, which will return to a more conventional setlist drawing on
some 27 years of material.
It's an atypically typical
move for the Hoboken-based trio, which has set the template for a particular
kind of adventurous, playful, historically-informed indie rock by, as
guitarist Ira Kaplan puts it in the following interview with NUVO, not staying
"wedded" to their "comfort zone."
For every action there is an
opposite in Yo La Tengo's world. For every Fakebook, a 1990 album largely comprised of acoustic covers (of song by
Cat Stevens, The Scene is Now, Daniel Johnston), there is 2008's Fuckbook, a collection of garage rock covers (Slade, Richard
Hell, the Flamin' Groovies) recorded by the band under the nameCondo Fucks.
For every tightly-crafted,
traditionally-arranged pop song, there is a 15-minute noisy, freeform jam
session. Or a lovingly-rendered jazz cover, like their take on Sun Ra's
"Nuclear War" ("If they drop that bomb, you ass has got to go.") Or a hip-hop
remix, like Pete Rock's reworking of "Here to Fall," a song on the band's most recent full-length, 2009's Popular Songs.
And for every moment when
Kaplan tries to hide in crowded room or escape by getting high ("Autumn
Sweater" and "Drug Test," respectively), there is a love song like "Center of
Gravity" from I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, a bossa nova-flavored duet between Kaplan and his
wife, drummer Georgia Hubley. Kaplan and Hubley have been around for the
entirety of the band's history, and bassist James McNew has put in plenty of
time since joining the group for 1993's Painful.
I spoke with Kaplan last
month about the tour and two Yo La Tengo traditions — their
usually-annual run of Hanukkah concerts at Hoboken club Maxwell's and their
marathon fundraising performances on New Jersey freeform station WFMU, during which the band covers songs suggested by on-air callers.
NUVO: How did you come up
with the idea for the show?
Ira Kaplan: We liked the idea of
the Condo Fucks doing tours, but not really doing a Condo Fucks tour per se. We
don't really love telling people in advance what we're going to do. We like for
there to be a certain, spontaneous aspect to it. Announcing that it's going to
be a Condo Fucks tour or it's going to be a Freewheeling tour didn't really
appeal to us that much, but we didn't want to not be able to play that way. As
some point this idea came to us, and it seemed to take care of every objection.
NUVO: Can you tell me about
the Freewheeling show?
Kaplan: We did a fair number
of shows as Freewheeling Yo La Tengo a couple years ago. Basically, we'll ask
the audience to ask us questions, and we'll take the questions and answer them,
and that will sort of inspire us to do a song. We'll be playing acoustically or
quietly; it'll just be kind of a Q&A with songs.
NUVO: What are some of the
oddest questions you've been asked?
Kaplan: I don't end up
remembering. It's not that easy; you have to kind of concentrate on what's
going on at that moment. When I go see somebody else, I'll typically be
watching the show, and then with another part of my brain, trying to remember
what songs they played to see how long I can keep them in order in my brain. I
don't have any free space in that part of my brain while we're doing
Freewheeling Yo La Tengo. But people really can ask whatever they want; they'll
ask stuff about the band, they'll ask about politics.
NUVO: Dump is another group,
like the Condo Fucks, that isn't heard from live very often.
Kaplan: We have done the
occasional Dump song in Freewheeling Yo La Tengo; when somebody asks James
about making Dump records, frequently we'll play one of those songs. We did
this a couple of times many years ago, where Georgia and I did some shows as
James's band, but it's been ages.
NUVO: I assume you won't tell
us what sitcom you have in mind.
Kaplan: Hopefully we're going
to ride that surprise all the way to the finish line. Without the excitement of
the surprise, I think it'll be even trickier to pull off.
NUVO: And The Sounds of
Science are also on the wheel. Could you talk about the process of scoring
Kaplan: Well, we had kind of
a stockpile of things we had made up. We're always recording rehearsals, and we
have thousands and thousands of hours of things we think we might want to listen
to again or do something with again. We went through a bunch of those things
and discussed within the group if any of them seemed to fit with any of the
movies we'd watched. We ended up with a few of those that seemed to go together
in a way that made sense to us. And then we just started playing them while
watching the movies, and like pouring a liquid into a mold, we allowed the
music to take the shape of the movies. They're pretty loose; there's occasional
things that happen according to what happen on screen, but generally it's more
by feel. It's kind of the nature of the movie; there's not a lot of dramatic
action in the movies either.
NUVO: Whose idea was it to
seek out hip-hop remixes of "Here to Fall"?
Kaplan: As a band, we liked
that idea of doing remixes of it. And then when it came to approaching specific
people, that was mostly generated from James; he's the person in the band who
listens to hip-hop in the band the most, and has the most developed taste in
that regard. Those were all people on his wishlist.
NUVO: What did you think when
you heard the interpretations, especially a song with new lyrics like Pete
Kaplan: It was hilarious. One
of the perks of having your song remixed is that you get to hear your own music
more as a fan than the person who did it. We rarely listen to our own music,
and we do so strictly for work purposes. It's not like, "Gee, what'll we listen
to today — a little Half Japanese, The Beatles? No, let's slap on a
little Yo La Tengo!" So the opportunity to put it on and get a kick out of it
in that way is definitely one of the good things about having remixes done.
NUVO: One review notes that
the EP was kind of step out of your comfort zone. Did it feel that way?
Kaplan: Well, yeah, [but
given] this tour we're discussing, I'm not sure that going outside of our
comfort zone is unusual for the band. We're not in love with our comfort zone.
NUVO: And you're willing to
poke fun at yourself, like with the title Fuckbook and the "Sugarcube" music video.
Kaplan: I think, as a band,
we're all big fans of comedy and stand-up comedy; it's been a big part of the
Hanukkah shows we've done. I think we've observed just how much you can reveal
through comedy, the information you can convey that way. We enjoy the laughing
aspect of it, but that was done seriously and hopefully a little more enjoyably
than the way I'm talking to you right now, in this turgid way.
NUVO: I see you worked on the
upcoming Baseball Project album.
Kaplan: Oh, it was called
"Buckner's Bolero," so I think that's what made Stephen Scott think of me.
Yeah, that was a lot of fun. I guess that's coming up pretty soon as the
baseball season approaches.
NUVO: Thinking of Facebook, your [mostly] covers album through which I discovered a bunch
of groups, I wonder if there were albums like that for you, which introduced
you to other bands.
Kaplan: No, not off the bat,
but I certainly learned about a ton through other bands either covering their
songs or referencing them during interviews; that was certainly a big way of
learning about music, especially when I was younger, but it kind of continues
to this day, reading songwriting credits and stuff like that. A strictly covers
record? I can think of a couple — I'm sure Moondog Matinee by The Band introduced me to a lot of bands. I
remember the observation that The Best of the Animals was a covers record, because only one of them was one
of their songs — but that's not exactly true, because a lot of them were
their hits that they just didn't write. Still that was a big part of being
interested in Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Just kind of being aware of the
world that Al Kooper de-constructed, that I will not refer to as Brill Building
songwriting, came from record credits.
NUVO: And have you made any
recent listening discoveries?
Kaplan: Well, the Syl Johnson
box, not that I didn't know it existed, but the incredible, incredible depth to
his career was something I knew very little about.
NUVO: Um, hrr, let me ask a
question about Sun Ra...
Kaplan: Oh, and it just
occurred to me to throw in a plug for The Scene Is Now, who did "Yellow Sarong"
on Fakebook. They have a new
record that's just incredible. That band, someday it would be great if that
band got one-one hundredth of their due. Magpie Alarm, is the name of it, a beautiful record.
NUVO: Sun Ra is another
amazing artist who I learned more about through your work. I wonder what you
draw from him, why you covered "Nuclear War," what you meant when you said you
stole from him for a couple tracks of Summer Sun?
Kaplan: I think the songs I
was referencing as being Sun Ra rip-offs were more other songs recorded with
some of the Other Dimensions in Music guys — the double seven-inch, and
not so much the music on Summer Sun.
Summer Sun is all completely
original; no influences at all on that one. [Long pause.] I'm just waiting for
NUVO: [Laughs heartily.] Ah,
right; figured you were joking.
Kaplan: I was looking forward
to seeing that in print. Well certainly the world he created around him was
extremely appealing and fascinating — the desire and the ability to go
from crazy, atonal music to versions of Walt Disney songs and other standards,
and sometimes to combine the two. There are certain groups that, the deeper you
go, you just never reach the bottom of your interest in them, you just want to
find out more and it's constantly rewarding to hear dozens of version of
different songs, different live recordings. It's fascinating to hear the
different ways you can play "Rocket Number 9 Take Off for the Planet Venus."
They remain amazing too; we see the Arkestra under the direction of Marshall
Allan, they're fantastic.
NUVO: Did you ever meet him
or see him play?
Kaplan: No and yes. I saw
them, but I didn't meet them. There was a memorable show they played at
Maxwell's when Georgia was the DJ and wanted to play more jazz than they would
usually play, and enlisted me to help her out on that night. But between sets,
playing records and having members of the Arkestra basically doing a Down
Beat blindfold test where they would
name every player on every song — we didn't know, we were playing our
records, but we didn't know who was on them. And it was like, "Sure enough,
that's Frank Foster on tenor. You are correct." And then they went on and blew
our minds for another hour.
NUVO: I'd like to talk about
a couple traditions you've established in New Jersey: your Hanukkah series and
your WFMU fundraising call-in show. Why is WFMU is important, and why do you
make a point every year to help during that drive?
Kaplan: Well, I think just
listening to it will answer the question of why it's important. When we started
doing it, the only way to listen to it was when you were driving in the very
near vicinity of East Orange, New Jersey. Since then, like everything else,
they're online, so everybody the world over has the opportunity to listen to
this amazing radio stations.
Listening to the marathon, I
always found it very moving. I love the Jerry Lewis telethon; those crazy
drives always seemed very entertaining to me.So many WFMU shows feature 45 minutes or an hour of unbroken
music — the on-air personality of the DJ is not what's driving them. And
then during the fundraising marathon, it would be what was driving the show;
you'd hear these people kind of come out from behind the curtain, and do
something that, perhaps, didn't come that naturally for them: to talk about
themselves, talk about the station, talk about money. And that's how dedicated
they were to the station, that they were willing to do all those things to keep
the station alive and keep their shows alive. I always thought it made really
riveting radio. But a lot of DJs would do these stunts to draw more attention
to the show. And frankly, to go back to an earlier question, these humorous
stunts were demonstrating just how seriously they took the station, and it just
sort of inspired us to want to be a part of it.
We approached [ex-roommate
and WFMU DJ] Gaylord [Fields] and asked if he would be interested in having us
come by and basically humiliate ourselves by trying to play these songs. It was
kind of a train wreck; we've gotten a lot better at it over the years, a lot
better. But even in its failure,
there was something very exciting and certainly unique about the experience. So
a year later, we were ready to try again.
NUVO: And there's sort of a
stump-the-expert vibe to it.
Kaplan: Well, I think one of
the things that's gotten better about it over the years, I think the audience
has gotten a little smarter about how to approach it. There's always been that
aspect to it, but we try to discourage that part of it; we're not claiming to
know every song that was ever written, so there's kind of a notion of tapping
our common knowledge. You could reference "Sitcom Theater" — one of the
things that we're going to do is pick something that people know. If we pick a
favorite obscure sitcom from 1950s television and the audience doesn't know
what it is, then it's going to have to rise and fall on the quality of our
acting. Similarly, I think the WFMU thing is working best when the people
listening already know that song, notjust the one person who selected some ridiculously obscure song that we
happen to know. I think, over the years, we get less requests like, "I'm going
to dare them to play this. They'll never be able to do it." That's a given,
that we can't do it.
NUVO: And can you talk about
how your run of Hanukkah concerts at Maxwell's has become something of a
tradition, with tickets selling out promptly?
Kaplan: Yeah, it was exciting
this year; we felt like U2 for a minute. As I said earlier, there's a lot of
things we do, like the WFMU thing, like Hanukkah, where we're not wedded to our
comfort zone. The idea of doing this eight-night run came to us kind of as a
joke on Christmas shows — instead of Christmas shows, why don't we do a
Hanukkah show? But I think the challenge of trying to put something like that together
— trying to prepare ourselves to play eight nights in a row in the same
place, which is like our version of running a marathon — it was appealing
to see what would happen to try it.
Format-wise, we haven't
changed it; the idea that we had for it, we liked enough, having an opening
act, having a comedian, either having the opening act or the comedian sit in
with us, doing as many covers by Jewish songwriters that we could come up with.
We've gotten more secretive over the years; it took us a few years to figure
out that it would work better if we never told anyone what we were playing. It
makes it easier if things change at the last minute, which happens all the
time, and it sort of fends off people asking...Kind of similar to the FMU show,
it's something that we simultaneously dread and look forward to; there's really
nothing like those shows and all the work that go into them. We always feel
rewarded, but there is so much work that goes into them, and always a little
bit of dread leading up to them and great relief when they're over.
I think the reason that this
year's shows, in particular, sold out so quickly is that people are aware that
the shows are unlike any others we do. I'm not sure they're the best shows we
do; we do a lot of things that are really unrehearsed, people sit in with us
who barely know the songs we're playing. The shows are very spontaneous and
very loose — they're certainly fun to do and I hope they're fun to be at
— and I think people appreciate that.